It is never easy for any professional football team to replace a veteran starter on their roster. Nor is it easy for that team to replace that same player who started 164 of the 175 games he participated in during his 11-year career. What makes that type of situation an unfortunate “trifecta” for a franchise is if that same player made the Pro Bowl five times at an important position like defensive tackle.
Unfortunately for the Steelers’ brass, 2013 will mark the first season since 2000 that the team will enter a regular season without Casey Hampton on their depth chart at the nose tackle position. With “Big Snack” out of town however, Pittsburgh’s coaching staff will turn to the talented yet largely untested trio of Steve McLendon, Al Woods, and Hebron Fangupo to pick up the slack.
Of the three players mentioned above, McLendon is the clear-cut starter and has been groomed to be “Snack’s” successor for the last three years. While Hampton received a bulk of the playing time from 2010-2012, McLendon has not necessarily been “chopped liver” when he has seen the field during that span (25 tackles, 3.0 sacks, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery).
In fact, McLendon’s athleticism and quickness could make him much more of a gap-penetrating presence than the gap-clogging Hampton was during the prime of his career. While McLendon is not the type of “Anchor of the A-Gaps” that the “roly poly” Hampton was, he has the raw tools to develop into a formidable nose tackle. Even “Snack” gave him his seal of approval when he referred to the massive (6’4″ 320 lbs.) McLendon as “a beast.”
Members of Pittsburgh’s front office also agreed with Hampton’s take on McLendon, and they made the 27 year-old former Troy Trojan “Snack’s” official replacement at nose tackle when they inked him to a three-year contract worth up to $7.5 million earlier this spring. McLendon appears excited to finally fill Hampton’s shoes this fall according to Mark Kaboly of The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and the Steelers appear to be all but willing to see what the former UDFA can do with his chance.
Behind McLendon, the Steelers will have the versatile duo of Al Woods and Hebron Fangupo jockeying for playing time. Although Woods is Ziggy Hood’s primary backup at left defensive end, the former “practice squadder” has turned the heads of many in the organization during the last two years with his play during the preseason. Woods not only played well enough to earn the backup defensive end spot behind Hood before this season, but he took second-team reps at nose tackle during OTA sessions.
Like Woods and McLendon, second-year nose tackle Hebron Fangupo is a former “practice squadder” who worked his way onto Pittsburgh’s roster since he was signed in December of last year. Like Woods as well, Fangupo has some experience under his belt as a five-technique defensive end, and might even have to chip in if a number of injuries occur along Pittsburgh’s defensive line. Although the 28 year-old Fangupo could use another year of two to work on his game, he could become a solid rotational and goal-line player for Pittsburgh like Chris Hoke was for so many years.
As I alluded to before, the void left by a player of Hampton’s caliber will be difficult to fill. Thankfully for the Steelers, it appears that they have not only groomed his successor, but also acquired some versatile depth behind McLendon for developmental purposes. I am intrigued more than anything to see how well McLendon responds to replacing a five-time Pro Bowl honoree like “Big Snack.”
While the task will not be easy, it does look like Pittsburgh’s brass have a viable plan in place for the “Post-Snack” era.
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